red meat steak beef

Will We Ever Stop Arguing About Red Meat?

By Chris Carmichael
Founder & Head Coach of CTS

If you have even a tangential interest in nutrition news, you have undoubtedly seen recent headlines proclaiming there are no health risks to eating red meat after all. This, of course, represents a dramatic reversal of decades of nutritional guidance aimed at reducing consumption of red and processed meats, based on the association with the increased risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and stroke. Coming on the heels of similar high-profile flip-flops about sodium, fat, and carbohydrate, many people have lost faith in nutrition guidelines and the scientists and organizations behind them. Coming from the perspective of a coach who has worked with thousands of athletes to change lifestyle, performance, and nutrition habits, I think there are two things to remember:

  1. Nutrition science will never provide easy Yes/No answers about what is healthy or unhealthy to eat. So, no, we will never stop arguing about red meat… or dairy, gluten, sugar, salt, or fat.
  2. Many factors – nutrition, genetics, exercise, stress, environment – affect your risks for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and stroke. The best use of nutrition science is to inform your dietary decisions within the context of your other risks.

Why Can’t We Get a Straight Answer?

The simplest explanation for why scientists can’t deliver black and white answers about red and processed meats is that they can’t conduct randomized double-blind crossover trials involving thousands of people over a few decades. Instead, they have to rely on observational studies that collect a wide range of data over a long period of time and then look for correlations, for instance, whether people who ate red meat more than X times per week suffered more heart attacks.

To create guidelines and recommendations for the public, organization consider information from many sources, including observational studies, systematic review studies, and controlled studies.

The elephant in the room is that huge industries have vested interests in nutritional guidelines because of their impact on the foods we choose to purchase. The sugar industry doesn’t want sugar associated with obesity and diabetes because, despite clear evidence excess calories from added sugar are bad for human health, people eating less sugar is bad for business. The multi-billion dollar beef industry would love dietary guidelines to swing back in favor of more red meat consumption. At times (potentially even this time), powerful interests from the sugar, beef, corn, soybean, and dairy industries have put their thumbs on the scientific scales, which has further eroded public trust in published research.

What about this latest study?

The big headlines over the past few weeks are related to five related review studies that looked at 61 articles, and the summary of recommendations essentially recommends people continue consuming the amount of red and processed meat they do now. They didn’t necessarily find that meat is more healthful for people than previously thought, but rather, that the risks associated with meat consumption are weaker than previously thought.

The news made for great headlines, not only because it contradicts decades of previous research, but because it’s exactly what a lot of people want to hear. People like red meat. According to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, American’s consumed more than 26 BILLION pounds of beef in 2018. The USDA reported “meat disappearance”, which is a proxy for consumption, at roughly 222 pounds per capita in the United States in 2018. For people who want to eat meat, but have been consistently told to limit consumption for health reasons, a study that gives them permission to eat all the meat they want is cause for celebration, vindication of existing eating habits, and a big middle finger to everyone who told them to cut back.

But, has anything really changed?

No, not really. When I read the studies and the responses from scientists and medical professionals (and there have been a lot of them in the past few weeks), I come away with the conclusion that eating red and processed meat can contribute to risk factors for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and stroke; but the contribution is accentuated or mitigated by other dietary choices, activity level, stress, genetics, and lifestyle behaviors – compounded over a period of decades.

What is clear is that there is no nutritional imperative for humans to consume red and processed meat, and people with a constellation of other risk factors (family history of heart disease, obesity, history of smoking, etc.) would benefit from eating less of it (or none at all).

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On a population scale, we can look for warning signs of foods or behaviors or pollutants that are harmful to humans. But on an individual basis, we have to find the best balance of personal risks. Eating a moderate amount of meat may pose a low and acceptable risk for a person who doesn’t already have a lot of other disease risk factors.

Eating more plants is still a better option

Even if everything in this newest volley of research is true and eating meat doesn’t increase your health risks, you should still eat less meat and more plants. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations there are about 1.4 billion head of cattle on the planet, and the land, water, and resources required to raise them is extraordinarily high compared to the amount of food energy produced. Plus, that many cattle burp and fart enough methane to significantly contribute to greenhouse gasses, about 41% of all livestock emissions, according to the FAO.

Fate of the planet aside, as a coach my priority for athletes has been to make sure they are optimally fueled for performance. The most important factors for performance are consuming enough total energy from a broad spectrum of foods in order to supply micronutrients and adequate carbohydrate, protein, and fat. Red meat and other animal products can be included in that, but don’t have to be. From a health perspective, consuming more plants and fewer animals (beef or otherwise) increases fiber intake, reduces caloric density (which is useful for portion control), reduces consumption of highly-processed foods, and delivers a wide range of vitamins, minerals, and other important micronutrients.

So, while we’ll probably never stop arguing about the effect of red and processed meat on human health, it’s a safe bet that eating less of both is a good thing for you and the planet.

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Comments 25

  1. Nice to see generally friendly comments, not always the case especially on line for this topic. I recall the study getting attention because mostly people do like a good steak at it’s telling them what they want to hear. I believe at a minimum it’s worth looking at what a proper portion size is. For me that brought my meat portions down to about 3 oz from zero to 2 times a day.

    It’s also worth noting that food guidelines are meant for the population as a whole and if you have to make suggestions to a large population and feed a growing number of people getting specific about what and how the animal was raised isn’t practical. I think if we specified only grass fed cows the increased cost and reduced availability would ultimately decrease the amount of meat that is eaten.

  2. Harvard – Eating meat led to smaller stomachs, bigger brains

    DNA Studies (NYT) – Northern Europeans inherited a larger amount of Yamnaya DNA, making them taller, too. But in southern Europe, people grew shorter after the advent of farming.

    Eat a variety of foods – check.

    Avoid anything from China – (1) dog food scandal. (2) I followed posts of a blogger traveling in China. Brief scene – To produce fake Coca-Cola, workers dipped bottles (using bare hands) into a vat then lifted and capped same.

    CO2 not scary enough so onto methane. Anything about environment published by the government has political influence.

    Speaking of influence by big business, now there’s a (big business) push for fake meat. Convenient that real meat becomes a villain.

  3. Hey Chris. Nice try but as a 60 year old ultra athlete and just doing a 105k in the Grand Canyon. I’m also an Exercise Physiologist. I appreciate your attempt here but you could get better credibility with me if you would separate processed meat from fresh meat. Huge difference! As a mostly cranivore I and many others feel great, especially with gut issues. Those cow farts are more than made up for by humans eating all those veggies! The answer is in individuality for each person. Bottom line. What works and can we measure it. Either way you tried. Tough topic with trying to politically correct and worries of judgement! Thanks 🙏

  4. Great article chris, there are so many variables as U say. To a eating red meat and benefits to a given person. I like that you included, the part about the planet and the inefficiency, of raising cattle for meat, opposed to using plant based protein, it is far more efficient and needs less resources to feed more people. Personally my wonder food is sprouted rice and lentil eaten together, with tomato sauce or even salsa for flavour. The two combined, at 100 grams, gives me about 300 calories and lots of carbs, protein, and fiber. That is what I eat the most of, but I will occasionally have red meat, but I am picky. I’ll make extra lean ground beef hamburgers or meat load myself. In the end people are adaptable, our body will do its best on what ever we give it. If we get thrown in the jungle and all their is to eat is bananas, we will some how survive on it, i believe.

  5. No, sorry, but the real elephant in the room is the enormity of suffering eating meat inflicts on sentient, emotional, and living beings who want to live as much as we humans do. The more science shows that animals have consciousness that is not completely alien to our own, the more pressing the ethics of raising and killing animals for food becomes. Yes, this is political because powerful economic sectors pay vast sums of money to denigrate vegetarians/vegans, promote their own profit-driven industries by paying for cultural and political support (advertising, entertainment, lobbying, etc.). Here’s my experience: after a lifetime eating meat three times a day, I moved to a rural community in Arizona. I moved there partly because the cycling was so great (mountains, flats, rolling hills, fairly mild weather, good roads, not a lot of traffic, you get the idea). We lived next to a field of cows. They had calves. We got to see the bonds, the herd grow and develop. Then a truck would come, take some of them away, and we had to listen to the rest of the herd bellow for days afterwards. I realized, they missed their babies and friends. So I stopped eating meat. I continued my riding, and after a few months I realized that I had more energy, recovered faster, and felt way better generally. And I didn’t do this for “performance” or “health” but because I didn’t want to be a part of a system of unabashed cruelty that depends on a culture of complete denial to exist. And if it isn’t denial that perpetuates the cruelty we inflict on animals, then it must be a refusal to care about that cruelty and suffering. I think we humans generally refer to that behavior as “evil.”

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience.
      I believe if people really understood the suffering humans inflict on the animals they eat, they would stop eating animals.

    2. Hi joyce, I totally agree, what are you eating for protein? I eat sprouted lentil, not that gassy at about 1/3 of a pound ( 100 grams) per serving. Your body gets used to it. Also older people, do not digest red meat that well any more. Their enzymes are not their anymore, and they sleep after eating it, proves that we don’t need to eat red meat in the first place. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the cruelty of killing animals for food, most of us are not connected to it, as we don’t see it.

  6. There is just so much confounding in nutritional research that nothing is “proven”, if those words are used then credibility is lost, science is rarely proven.

    The other issue is confirmation bias both with lay people and researchers. Vegans will surround themselves with their propaganda i.e. What the health etc, thinking it’s pure, maybe not realising the huge agribusiness (monocropping is big business) and religious lobby groups acting behind the scenes.

    Same goes for the omnivorous bunch following their bloggers and internet gurus sprouting the need for sustainable agriculture for soil health and vitamins B12, Choline, EPA DHA etc etc, often with the beef and dairy industry pulling the strings.

    Top journals then publish articles that aren’t necessarily free of bias to satisfy a funding source.

    It all gets a bit religious and dogmatic in the end with everyone being a little altruistic which is a shame. No side is right or wrong, both have pros and cons, no 1 way of eating is good for everyone, despite what the religious leaders say.

    And why is pasture fed beef put in the same category as processed meat? We may as well lump trans fats and extra virgin olive oil together to make a level playing field.

  7. As Mark said above, “Probably the best way to be convinced of the benefits of a plant based diet would be to personally experience the truth for oneself.” I strongly doubted that going to a plant-based whole-food diet would make any positive difference to my health or athletic performance…but I was willing to try it for three months.

    Results: I lost eight pounds, blood test results improved dramatically, no loss of power. Watts/Kg went way up, recovery improved markedly so I could train harder more often. And I feel great. It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. Now I eat small amounts of animal protein occasionally, but not very much. If you are a doubter like I was, I invite you to try it yourself. Go 100% plant-based/whole-foods for three months. You might be amazed and it could really improve your performance on the bike. What do you have to lose?

  8. You’ll almost never get a ‘final’ say study — since there is no way to get a significant number of people — living in essentially the same other environmental/nutrition conditions — to be studied for an entire lifetime. To be a ‘perfect’ study you’d need to nearly get sets of twins from a young age — and make one be a meat-eater for 70+ years, and make the other be a pure vegetarian — and perfectly match up for all other food, living conditions, and workouts. All the studies done so far are close to anecdotal/empirical — using what people say they eat/do.

    As studies have found:
    — people eat/do very different things.

    Some eat tons of veggies, others none. Some drink various things — alcohol, soda, coffee, etc. Some do tons of aerobic activity — others none.
    — people say one thing, but actually those statements don’t match.

    Some actually ate more meat than they said. Others ate less than they said. Sometimes ‘non-meat’ eaters actually did at times.
    — how does one account for other proteins..
    — how does one account for the light meat eater vs the heavy.
    — how does one separate people who eat pork vs beef.

    What’s the effect of chicken or fish.

    There are plenty of studies showing that vegetarians do at least as well (if not better) on the longevity/health scale as meat eaters. Are they enough on their own to cause one to never eat any meat —- obviously that becomes a personal choice.

    Personally – I look at this from the evolutionary scale. Humans developed most of the time based on being some form of hunter-gatherers, then on to eating farmed products.

    For the most part — purely processed food is a recent (last 100 years or so) item. They certainly weren’t something we ‘evolved’ to eat. Maybe in 500-1000+ years, that might be true (much as our thumbs may be overdeveloped for using smartphone devices). So eating a ‘Supersize me’ (look up the movie) diet isn’t likely healthy.

    On the other hand, humans have been eating naturally grown/hunted/fished meat and fish for quite a long time — at admittedly very differing amounts. It may be true that to get to quite older ages (beyond the life expectancy of someone from the 1800s or before) — we might actually be better off without any/little red meat in our diets. Of course, most everyone can name off that parent, grandparent, uncle, aunt, etc who made it to 95+ and ate all sorts of meat products. Are those outliers/rarity cases — possibly so.

  9. If you are serious about your performance and have not seen the movie Game Changers, I’d suggest you check it out. I found the science of how eating meat affects your performance to be very interesting and enlightening.

  10. Excellent article and as scientifically factual as possible. Double blind crossover studies on nutrition are extremely difficult. You might be interested in reviewing the diets and lifestyles of people living in the “blue zones.”

    If one wants to disregard the studies and reviews of Dean Ornish, MD, Michael Gregor, MD, Campbell PhD, David Katz, MD, MPH, etc. that’s your choice. These scientists are not political although have strong beliefs based on valid studies.

    As far as cattle contributing to approximately 1/4-1/3 of global warming due to methane gases as well as the destruction of forest for the necessary grazing land. Take a few minutes and read the science. It is available and I’d like to think evidence based with minimal personal bias.

    Probably the best way to be convinced of the benefits of a plant based diet would be to personally experience the truth for oneself. I was in your camp and doubted what I didn’t want to hear or believe. I was challenged by a trusted friend and tried a plant based diet for thirty days – fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains, naturally high fiber foods – avoiding for the most part all processed food, meats, sugar, dairy, alcohol, power bars etc.

    If you can get baseline studies ie lipid profile, hemoglobin A1C an/or fasting blood sugar, c- reactive protein ( inflammatory marker) and repeat on day thirty. I’m reasonably confident you’ll see an improvement. Plus your weight will begin to optimize.
    Most importantly I think you’ll just feel better.
    Maybe all placebo effect – try it as I imagine you’ve taken on harder challenges. See the results for yourself and then decide.
    Good luck.

  11. That study as been debunked. Turns out the “scientists “ had finical links to the meat industry, heavily biased.
    Leaving us back to be sensible, I know boring but still the true.

  12. Great article but I would like to include some questions that I have never seen addressed but saw mentioned in the description of foods addressed. Is it truly about the type of food or the source of the food? Processed versus non-processed? What impact can or do chemicals used to process food really have against health in the body?

    So in other words red meat raised organically versus massed produced with steroids to increase growth rate, antibiotics to keep the animal healthy to get to market, possible heavy metals in the food source of the meat that is all in the meat you eat. This distinction is one difference I question as not being directly assessed in the research in main stream studies. When you look to other research sources that by design do not have a relationship with the industry that produces our food a couple of facts come out.

    Our bodies were not designed to process chemicals over our life span without an impact at the genetic level, that you find and see on packaging of processed foods. If you look at an organically grown apple (if it truly is organically grown without any chemicals produced by man) what does its label, the skin, indicate as the contents of it. Just everything man has eaten for centuries and nutritional content that supports our bodily functions. Compare that apple to one packaged in slices that is not organically grown, may possibly be a GMO product and lasts for weeks within it’s packaging. Is it the packaging, the growth process and chemicals or both to remain on the shelf for weeks and what is its nutritional impact over a long period of time?

    What I have come to understand from the bulk of this non -mainstream research is when industrialization came into practice to mass produce foods that can remain on the shelf for longer periods of time, designed to grow faster to meet our population growth we began to use chemicals and food sources that on short term studies we did not see and or was hidden from public knowledge, long term impact. Cumulative lifestyle practices have an impact over the long term of many years to decades but were never studied for that extended period of time. Our life time span. We put sugar into most of those products to make it more palatable and increase our desire to eat more, sugar as we now understand is the primary culprit to a great number of our diseases. Chemicals and heavy metals add to that at the cellular and genetic level.

    So is it really the type of food or how it arrived on your plate? Is vegetarian or vegan healthier than the standard American diet or fast food? What you choose does make a difference being mindful of what that choice means to you at a cellular level. Stress is second to sugar on impact to your health. Being active is key as well. Definitely have to have fruits and vegetables in your diet to get the micronutrients for cellular and biological health, on the big picture view it is about more than red meat? Look at some of the new sciences in epigenetics, neuroplasticity, microbiomes and formulate a choice from that based upon how your body reacts to a healthier approach to living.

    1. Whole food, few processes, mostly plant based, organic if you can afford it.
      Sadly, a lot of fish now contain high levels of mercury, so better to stick to small amounts of grass fed, pasture raised meats, that hopefully are slaughtered in a sanitary facility

  13. Silly. Simple guidelines I use: if it is highly processed or requires the addition of chemicals to make it last longer it is less nutritious-if it is excessively salty or sweet, less nutritious (or, in the case of salt, potentially inedible)… If it came from the classic perimeter of the store, likely better on the scale…

    This simple heuristic works…. Hmm, unless the classic grocery store layout is changed… (last part is a joke)

  14. I have found Pot Roast helps with rotator cuff surgery inflammation vs chicken or greek yogurt. Somewhere I read that vitamin K, in red meat, helps remove calcium crystals from tendons.

    What are some good non meat sources of K? No nightshades please.

  15. 100% with Boyd here. As Chris noted, it’s the agendas of red meat producers, the sugar industry and others that are political. Science is, when not politically motivated, about facts. The highlighted study that appeared to clear red meat should be looked at closely by folks as it had some issues with design; plenty of well-designed independent studies have shown the opposite.

    It’s not easy to associate cause-and-effect when long-term studies are required, but the evidence against red and processed meat is mounting. Folks like Dr. Gabe Mirkin, a physician for over 50 years who publishes weekly articles geared to active people with medical journal citations (he is in his 80s and still cycles regularly, his website pushes no supplements, check it out, has a number of articles on this topic.

    Here is one of many:

    (I recommend folks sign up for his weekly newsletter, it’s a great service for endurance athletes looking for unbiased information with a medical slant).

    I am not a vegan, vegetarian or pescatarian but articles like his, which curate information from medical journals for general audiences, have influenced me to cut my red meat consumption by 90%, and increase consumption of veggies and nuts.

    Mom’s advice still resonates: “Balance in everything, son.”, “Read information from a wide variety of sources.” and “Keep an open mind.”

  16. Chris is entitled to his opinion and this is all it is. This article is getting political. Ok, we get you prefer plant diet. Eat plants and let the rest of us eat what works for us. And for your methane comment, very unfounded and not true. I have enjoyed your articles, but if you keep going down a political path, I am opting out.

    1. There’s nothing political in this article Jim T, just a summary of facts and research. Why do you claim the methane comment is not true?
      According to Agriculture Canada “Methane gas is a potent greenhouse gas produced in the rumen of cattle during the normal process of feed digestion and represents a significant loss of feed energy that increases feed costs. For example, a lactating dairy cow produces about 400 grams of methane each day. These methane losses quickly add up. In one year, the amount of methane a dairy cow produces is equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions from a mid-sized vehicle driven 20,000 kilometres.”

      1. Two thoughts:
        1. Do the methane studies use factory animals or pastured, presumably grass fed cows?

        2. I think lumping red meat with processed meat is conflating two disparate things.

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